My new mystery/detective novel, A Piece of Work, takes place in 1959 New York City. There a many iconic settings in the novel, one being the San Remo Cafe at the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Street. The San Remo Cafe opened in 1925 and was a regular hangout writers, artists
My protagonist, Lee Linville, goes to the San Remo Cafe one night with some friends. That night the counterculture poet, Allen Ginsberg, is also present. Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled, The Beat Generation.
THE SAN REMO Cafe sat on the corner of Macdougal and Bleeker Street. A pillar sign stood out front and a low step from the sidewalk brought Linville and his party inside. The San Remo was more of a bar than a coffee shop. It had white tile with black star-like patterns on the floor. Despite its tall pressed-tin ceiling, the place was filled with smoke, the smell of beer and alcohol and an unending buzz of chatter. It was bigger than the last place, but filled with people. The clientele of the San Remo were classier than the coffee house as well. There were less black berets and striped sweaters here, and more jackets, ties and evening dresses. The place was lit by a number of globes that hung from the ceiling on chains.
Aside from numerous tables and chairs, there were wooden-bench booths along the wall, but practically all the seats were taken.
“What say we imbibe something fermented at the bar,” the Prof said, taking the pipe from his mouth. Lee figured he still had enough money for a few drinks.
Dark wooden paneling lined the walls. A large mirror trimmed with woodwork was set behind the long bar. They maneuvered their way toward it. Lee ordered them all drinks from an old bartender who looked at Linville with veiled contempt. The bartender put four drinks on the bar and glared at Lee. Lee paid for the drinks with loose change. There was no tip. The bartender grunted his disapproval. Everyone picked up their drinks. Lee turned to see a man next to him was observing him closely.
“Don’t let old Nino bother you,” said a well-dressed man to him. He had watched the exchange between Lee and the bartender. “Nino’s worked here twenty-five years ago when it was owned by the Santini family. Nino misses the days when this place was full of mobsters and their molls. They were big spenders. Now he has to put up with writers, poets and painters, who are cheap and broke.”
The man introduced himself as George. He was a handsome, forty-five-year-old man with good manners and a classy fashion sense. George wore a pinstripe tan jacket, a butterscotch checkered vest, and dark silk tie. He had a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“And what is your name?” George asked, with smiling dark eyes.
George put his cigarette in his mouth and reached into his jacket. He took out a gold cigarette case, the type with a lighter built into it. George opened the case. “Lee, would you care for a cigarette?”
Lee nodded. He took the cigarette George offered and the older man lit it with the lighter.
“Have I seen you here before, Lee?” George asked.
“I’ve never been here before.”
There was a loud ruckus from a table across the room.
“Well, you are in for a treat, Lee,” George said, and taking him by the arm he escorted him closer to the loud table.
An empty chair was set on the floor and with the encouragement of his companions, a man climbed up and stood on a chair. He was in his early thirties and wore heavy horn rimmed glass. He was slim with thick dark hair that was starting to thin on top. He had dark soulful eyes, a heavy dark beard and mustache and a full lipped mouth. He wore a tweed coat and a dark sweater over an open neck shirt. Someone handed him a book.
“That is Allen Ginsberg,” George said. “Do you know Allen Ginsberg? He is a fantastic poet. I believe he is going to recite one of his poems.”
The group surrounding Ginsberg cheered and shouted both encouragement and insults. They were all pretty drunk, but the poet did not slur his words, nor was he overly dramatic, but rather recited his work quickly and somewhat mechanical.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
The poem took about twenty minutes for Ginsberg to read. Each time there was a mention of drugs or sex the crowd came to life with a communal ‘Whoaaaaaaaaa!’
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night
The end was greeted with a rousing cheer and applause. Standing on the chair, Ginsberg bowed at the waist and then stepped off the chair and took his seat.
When the loud clamor died down and everyone returned to what they were doing before the poetry reading, Lee looked around for his companions. Lena and The Prof were talking with a group in the far corner, and Colleen had joined up with some young people more her age.
“What did you think of Ginsberg’s poem?” George asked Lee.
“What is it called?”
Lee nodded. It certainly was that, he thought, like a madman howling at the moon.
“That poem will come to identify this generation,” George said. “You certainly must relate to it, no? Does it not speak to your very soul? Does it not touch something deep in here” he said, and placed his hand on Lee’s chest.
“It certainly howls at me, I guess.”
“Yes, yes,” George said, enthusiastically. “In the rawness of the language it howls at the beast within you; that beast trying to get out. We are all savage beasts under the skin.” George raised his brows and cocked his head. “Would you like to meet him?”
“Who? Ginsberg?”“You must meet him, you simply must,” George said, and taking Lee by the arm he made his way through the throng of people.
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